Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners
Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners

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Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners

Memory in The Lonely Londoners: Moses and Galahad

In the later stages of the novel the theme of memory comes strongly to the fore, highlighting the stark contrast between these characters’ past and present locations and the depths of their alienation. Recalling hardships suffered in his younger days in San Fernando, when his father was reduced to snatching pigeons for food, Galahad’s desperation drives him to mimic his father’s actions in the more rarefied surroundings of Kensington Gardens. The horrified reactions he provokes illustrate all too clearly the vast cultural differences in time and place between the migrants’ homelands and 1950s London. Nevertheless, just as the stolen pigeon provides sustenance for Galahad and Moses, so their reminiscences offer them consolation and affirmation, before Moses lapses into the guilt and despair that increasingly characterise his mood:

‘Boy,’ Moses say, ‘look how we sit down here happy, and things brown in general. I mean, sometimes when we oldtalking so I does wonder about the boys, how all of we come up to the old Brit’n to make a living, and how years go by and we still here in this country. Things like that does bother me.’

(p. 124)

Unusually here, it is Moses who lapses into an idealised nostalgic reverie: ‘I would get a old house and have some cattle and goat, and all day long sit down in the grass in the sun, and hit a good corn cuckoo and calaloo now and then’ (p. 125). Although Moses projects into the future here, it is an idealised future vision of a Caribbean life at odds with the reality of rural poverty that provided the impetus for many to leave the Caribbean behind. Moses here is led by his physical displacement from his native land and his psychological alienation from his adopted city, to create an ‘imaginary homeland’, a Caribbean of the mind, to appropriate Salman Rushdie’s perspective on the migrant experience (Rushdie, 1981, p. 10). By contrast, in a moment of role-reversal, Galahad becomes the hard-headed realist: ‘It ain’t have no prospects back home, boy’ (p. 125). The imaginary homelands that live on in the memories of Moses and other devotees of ‘oldtalk’ like Tanty are, it could be argued, as illusory as the perceptions about the ‘mother country’ that many migrants held on arrival in Britain. Nevertheless, the significance of memory for these characters is evident throughout the novel and amply demonstrated by Moses: ‘This is a lonely miserable city, if it was that we didn’t get together now and then to talk about things back home, we would suffer like hell’ (p. 126).

Memories play a central role in strengthening the relationships between the central characters as the novel progresses. The overall mood becomes increasingly despairing, and is focalised even more deeply through Moses’ jaundiced perspective in the final pages. Alongside this, however, there is also a greater sense of connection between Moses and his fellow migrants. Whereas at the start of the novel Moses seems to be a reluctant good Samaritan, here he shows deep insight into the pain of displacement that these characters feel, shifting between dialect voice and idiomatic expression to more heightened diction and elevated lyricism:

Under the kiff-kiff laughter, behind the ballad and the episode, the what-happening, the summer-is-hearts, he could see a great aimlessness, a great restless, swaying movement that leaving you standing in the same spot. As if a forlorn shadow of doom fall on all the spades in the country.

(pp. 138–9)

The sense of community endures, however, as the characters assemble around Moses, penetrating so deep into his consciousness that he feels their presence even when they are not there:

Sometimes during the week, when he come home and he can’t sleep, is as if he is hearing the voices in the room, all the moaning and groaning and sighing and crying, and he open his eyes expecting to see the boys sitting around.

(p. 135)

Activity 7

Read the extract below from the introduction to Onyekadu Wambu’s Empire Windrush: 50 Years of Writing About Black Britain (1998) and then answer the following question:

How far is this a fair assessment of Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners and its representation of migrant experience?

Over the years the preoccupation of much of the literature has been with this troubled quest for identity and liberty, as men were wrenched away into a new world, and older notions of self collapsed. This is largely the world of the wretched, having to remake themselves constantly in a hostile world, with wretched tools. It is necessarily bleak, tragic and sad.

(Wambu, 1998, pp. 23–4)

Discussion

As some of the preceding discussions have demonstrated, the instability of identity and the struggle to create a new sense of self in different surroundings is a recurring theme in Selvon’s novel, symbolised by Bart’s attempts to exploit his lighter skin as a way of distancing himself from his fellow migrants; Galahad’s emphasis on dressing sharply and smartly to bolster his sense of self; and Moses’ increasingly unfocused yearning for a different way of life. Selvon’s characters, ground down by prejudice, could indeed be seen as wretched, and clearly do exist in a ‘hostile world’. But the novel also celebrates London, and the characters’ determination to struggle on manifests itself through vivid and humorous episodes. ‘Bleak, tragic and sad’ the novel may be on occasion, but some of the characters, especially Galahad, show at times the positive side of living in London in a dark and often dreary period of English history.

Selvon’s novel offers a perspective on the impact of Caribbean migration on its characters and on the ‘mother country’ in the early post-war era. As the novel draws to a close Moses’ meditations add a distinctly self-referential dimension to the text:

Daniel was telling him how over in France all kinds of fellars writing books what turning out to be best-sellers. Taxi-driver, porter, road-sweeper – it didn’t matter. One day you sweating in the factory and the next day all the newspapers have your name and photo, saying how you are a new literary giant.

He watch a tugboat on the Thames, wondering if he could ever write a book like that, what everybody would buy.

(p. 139)

This ending leads Ramchand to suggest that ‘in a sense, The Lonely Londoners is the book Moses would have written’ (1985 [1956], p. 21), a plausible idea that makes explicit the novel’s questioning of traditional notions of what constitutes literature and the literary.

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